There were outbursts of anger and applause in parliament after a vote that rejected a referendum on relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws.
The outcome was not a total surprise, as it was known that the right wing parties, that hold a majority in parliament, were keen to maintain the status quo. Prime Minister Durão Barroso had also made clear that he was against holding a referendum on changing the law during his term in office.
Left wing parties have been calling for a relaxation of the abortion laws, which are among the strictest in Europe, for some months now. Pro-abortion campaigners had presented parliament with a petition containing more than 100,000 signatures requesting an immediate change in Portugal’s restrictive abortion laws. The number of signatures contained in the document was 25,000 signatures over the amount required by parliament in order for a referendum question to be put to the government.
As they waited for the decision, pro-choice groups demonstrated outside the parliament buildings. They want women to have the option to end pregnancies of up to 12 weeks. At the moment, it is only legal for a woman to have a pregnancy terminated if it is the result of rape, or if there is a danger to the mother or unborn child. Pro-life campaigners were also out in force before the vote.
Family planning agencies estimate that around 20,000 illegal abortions are carried out in Portugal every year. Last year alone, five women died and 11,000 needed medical treatment after having clandestine abortions. However, many argue that proper sex education in schools is the only answer to tackling the problem.
A referendum, held in 1998, was narrowly rejected by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. However, a recent study revealed that nearly three quarters of the Portuguese population want the new referendum to be held and more than two thirds would vote to liberalise women’s access to abortion.
Anti-abortion leaflet causes uproar
Meanwhile, outrage has greeted the distribution of thousands of leaflets containing graphic anti-abortion images and messages in Portuguese schools. Parents’ groups and family planning associations have accused the campaign’s promoters of adopting “terror tactics”.
The leaflets are being distributed by a civic association – SOS VIDA – a group that has declared itself to be against any form of interruption to pregnancy. The leaflet contains graphic images of foetuses and a detailed description of alleged abortion procedures.
The following passage is written in the leaflet, entitled ‘Love is needed’: “The child is tortured, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed by the insensitive steel instruments of the abortionist.” The leaflet concludes with an example of how, “money, power and other interests and convenience count for more than science and reason”. It claims that two babies are being ‘killed’ every second – “more than in all the combined wars in the world” – and cites examples of dead babies allegedly being bought for 50 to 70 dollars in Taiwanese hospitals and sold as food. The leaflet even contains an image of an alleged foetus on a plate at a table where an unidentified Oriental man, knife and fork at the ready, prepares to eat.
Another excerpt from the leaflet contains the alleged guilt-stricken words of a mother who terminated her pregnancy: “I recognise that I killed my son – I live a tormented life and suffer to an extent that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. How could I have killed my son to enjoy a life without any inconvenience? I valued freedom above everything else, even to the point of killing my son, who now accuses me constantly.”
Padre Jerónimo Gomes, the principal promoter of the initiative, defended the leaflet and said the reception to it had mainly been “positive”. But Albino Almeida from the Confederation of Parents, condemned the distributors: “It is lamentable that, in the name of whatever values they uphold, they force themselves on children in this way,” she said.
In one of the schools where the leaflet was distributed, Casa de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, a girls’ boarding school in Portimão, a film called The Silent Scream, containing images of an abortion, was also shown. At a Lisbon Catholic school, some pupils who saw the leaflet, handed out by their own teachers, were said to react with incomprehension and tears.
A paediatric expert, Calheiros Lobo, condemned the distribution of such information to impressionable children and warned that they risked being “traumatised” by the event. The Ministry of Education has already begun an investigation into the campaign. Meanwhile, the Communist Party (PCP) has also demanded an explanation, condemning the leaflets as “a campaign containing terrorist arguments and psychological violence”. The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) has also demanded a debate in the presence of the Secretary of State for Education, Mariana Cascais.